Monday, July 31, 2017

Houston Dynamo 2-2 Portland Timbers: An Unwelcome Comparison

Also, these get fucked up real fast.

A couple, three weeks back, I posted a poll on twitter that gave a quartet of projected overall records (e.g., 6-5-3, 4-7-3, 8-2-4, etc.) with which the Portland Timbers would see out the 2017 season. I don’t remember the exact numbers (and that tweet lies buried beneath an avalanche of anti-Trumpublican venting), but I landed on each of those projections by going through the rest of Portland’s schedule and divining results based on the opposition, the venue for each game, and some vague potential plotlines for each opposing team going forward. I felt like science, people (if only social science).

How’d I do so far? I had the home game against Real Salt Lake carved in stone as an easy Portland win (violently nope!), and yesterday’s draw against the Houston Dynamo as a certain loss – both of those across all scenarios. As for the road win against the Vancouver Whitecaps, I put that down as either a loss or a draw, so…yeah, fucking psychic over here. If anyone out there wants help picking the ponies, I offer reasonable hourly rates. (A friend helpfully pointed out that I got the total number of points over the past three games right at least – four points out of nine.)

If I sound less confident than I used to over the past couple seasons about what’s happening with the Timbers, I guess my rebuttal is, can you blame me? If this team played soccer like it thwarts expectations, they’d win the triple every year.

As for yesterday, the best excuse I can offer for a bogus (and silent) “Lock of the Week” prediction was that the Dynamo team I expected didn’t show up. Part of that had to do with the twin Honduran terrors – Alberth Elis and Romell Quioto – starting the game on the bench. Portland countered with a line-up close enough to its starting eleven – and that’s even with Lawrence Olum starting in central defense (more later), and Darlington Nagbe and Sebastian Blanco starting on, at least what I assumed were the opposite of their usual assignments in the 4-2-3-1.

The Timbers opened the game strong (literally; just re-watched the condensed game and the team held possession through Nagbe’s opening shot inside the first minute), and they continued to find one another in space all the way to Diego Valeri’s opening goal. Some bad defending provided either the secondary or primary assist (Zarek Valentin fed Valeri, but, holy shit, did Leonardo make at least one terrible decision in playing that pass), but the Timbers earned that one. The team looked comfortable most of the evening, especially on the ball; the passing was respectably crisp and all concerned looked lively in spite of Houston’s sticky East Texas heat.

For all their good work and poise going forward, the Timbers coughed up two goals – and how you feel about those two goals should say a lot about your personal benchmark for where Portland stands in 2017. As much as I don’t blame Jake Gleeson for trying to play that ball (also, I’m surprised Houston didn’t generally make more out of Roy Miller playing at left back), it follows his season-long struggles with controlling his area. A little more vexation surrounds Houston's second goal in that Valentin still feels like the current best choice at right back, even if he’s prone to the kind of lethal switch-offs that have plagued the Timbers all (say it with me, fucking) season.

Sharper readers might have noticed that I elevated narrative (e.g. the Timbers cough up goals) over chronology, because the Timbers gloriously reclaimed the lead just as the first half gasped its last (well, slightly before; again, narrative first) with Blanco knocking in, 1) the best goal of the night, and 2) just the latest example of how lethally he and Valeri (can) play off one another. The Timbers actually appeared to have expanded their lead to 3-1 when Fanendo Adi (there he is) slotted home after Portland had, yet again, broken down Houston’s defense with extensive possession...and no readibly available highlight for that one...hmmm... The officiating team (yep, at least two out of the three snitches were involved) called it back and they probably got it right. Had Adi just jogged alongside Leonardo as he retreated back to provide support, as opposed to bumping into him all the way back, I’m guessing he would not have been called offside. Involving himself in the play was smart in the normal course, but it cost Portland and this case…

…and, sensing a theme.

Look, the further Portland gets from the disaster of that home loss to RSL, the more that game feels like a dishearteningly hideous anomaly; the Timbers season-long pattern has involved the offense putting in enough goals to compensate for its Danger-Prone Daphne defense (and, girl, I still love you…). While nothing about that experience has been comfortable, at least most games are fun. All of us would have been happier, both today and yesterday, had Adi’s goal stood – and that would have by no means gone done as some greatest injustice, because Portland played a good game in Houston, something not a lot of teams have done this season. Take away those two brutal blips, and give Gleeson credit for the one great save he’ll inevitably get in every game, and that draw looks reasonably positive. Reasonably…

In all honesty (and I know I’ve been highly bipolar on this score; please bear with me), Portland boasts a few positives this season – and beyond the Valeri/Blanco thing. First of all, Blanco’s stock, as an individual piece on the roster, keeps rising for me, and that’s a global appreciation, whether it’s defensive work, the way his brain works, etc. Also, the last four points Portland has picked up came on the road; that’s not just a good short-term trend, because Portland’s 3-6-3 record in 2017 already beats the hell out of 0-11-6 on points (it doubles it, in fact, because 12 points versus 6).

The subtlest positive for me, however, is recent – e.g., seeing Jeremy Ebobisse and Victor Arboleda get more minutes on the field. More than anything else, the Timbers need options. Even if you set aside that, well, shocking headed miss (no highlights, and why would there be?), Ebobisse has enjoyed a respectable toe-dip into the first-team waters, and Arboleda entices well enough to make me hopeful that those two could blossom into useful parts – and maybe a necessary one, in Ebobisse’s case, in the event Adi departs for richer situations abroad (then again, his recent decision-making…not great).

It’s not all sunshine and unicorn ponies, obviously, because there’s still that thing with defensive breakdowns occurring on the regular (whoever coined that phrase deserves royalties, btw). Larrys Mabiala has this learning curve to overcome – see the moment in the first half when Valentin lectured him on the proper disposition of the ball (and Mabiala, to his credit, took it well). He’s got time in my book, but this does still feel like the defense the Timbers will have through the rest of 2017 and…well, that’s not ideal. It also is what it is.

To touch on something trickier, notably, what has been, is Liam Ridgewell still an actual starter for the Timbers defense? On a practical level, I’m inclined to no. Chalk that up to ability or injuries as it suits you, but he’s barely been around this season, others have stepped up in his stead - whether Olum or Miller, and I’m not sure the team actually suffered one way or the other, so…

The Western Conference is tight as hell this year, so the thin margin Portland has spent the entire season teetering over does matter. I no longer expect greatness from this team, but I have come to appreciate the wildly-unpredictable entertainment that has defined this season. Love it or hate it, Portland, between its liquid attack and sleep-walking defense, keeps things interesting. Between all of the above, Portland still feels like a playoff-ready team – and that improved road record gives some reason to believe the team can go somewhere once it gets there…just so long as they don’t face a strong defense.

And done for tonight. See all ya’ll next week.

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